Back in the days when Marvel still had a bullpen and DC Comics only had one Batman, you pretty much had to live in New York to break into comics.
Now, not so much.
As I’ve said before, I grew up in smalltown Alabama. Jasper, Alabama, to be exact. Home of “Butterbean” and “Goober” and Sawyer from “OST.” For the last ten years, I’ve lived in Kansas City, home of the world’s greatest barbecue. I’ve never lived in New York, though my editors do. The artists I’ve worked with have come from all over the world.
Thank you, Internet. And not just for the free porn.
I consider myself a southern writer, and I think you can see that flavor in a lot of my work, from the main character of “The Other Side” to the redneck cannibal ghosts in “Ghost Rider.” I’ve never shied away from my Southern roots when it comes to writing. I’ve always embraced it, and I think that helped me get noticed as I was trying to break in. Because there aren’t very many southern writers in comics, I think my voice stood out a bit more. So I guess the lesson would be:
Don’t be afraid to be from somewhere.
Somewhere other than New York, that is. Don’t be afraid to season your writing with the flavors of wherever it is you’re from. It can help you develop a voice. And you’re going to need to develop a voice.
Style and voice were elements that for me only evolved after lots and lots of really bad writing. I had a class on William Faulkner in college that had a profound influence on me, and for years after that, everything I wrote was an attempt at aping Faulkner’s style, with lots of long tangled knots of sentences and all sorts of stream of consciousness meanderings. Gertrude Stein, William Blake, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Grant Morrison’s “Doom Patrol” were other big influences from that time that were all added to the mix. Somewhere, I’ve got a couple of unfinished novels written in that style that I hope will stay buried forever.
Once I discovered James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy (the two men I would consider the world’s greatest living writers), as well as the films and plays of David Mamet, I was pulled in the opposite direction, toward a much more terse, staccato style. At present, my style probably falls somewhere in the midst of all that, between the long and languid and the brutally direct.
So how did all that help me write comics? I think I had to ape my heroes for a bit before I could figure out how to write for myself. No matter what format those stories were going to take. And playing off the voices of others helped me eventually find one for myself.
My late cousin, the author Gustav Hasford, once wrote, in a letter to the U.S. Custom’s office: “I spent a year in London writing the screenplay for the upcoming Stanley Kubrick film, “Full Metal Jacket” and I needed this ton of books and papers (600 pounds?) so that I might steal my ideas from the widest possible range of sources, the secret of good writing.”
Now that doesn’t mean that you should go out and become the literary equivalent of Rob Granito. But you certainly need to write your way through your influences, a hopefully rich and diverse list of influences, before you can come out the other side as whatever it is you’re going to be.
Or I don’t know, maybe you were lucky and came out of the womb with a style and a voice all your own. If not, then like me you have to work at it and develop it over time. Either way, the important thing is to find it. To find your voice, to make it sing and to use it to get yourself noticed.
And then, to be able to let it go.
At least when you need to.
I don’t know about you, but few things yank me out of a story faster than reading something and only being able to hear the writer’s own personal voice in my head.
We’ve all been guilty of this. We all have tropes we tend to fall back on, and the lure to speak directly through your characters is always there.
But one of the most important aspects of having a distinctive voice is also being able to bury it when you need to.
To disappear. To leave just characters behind, talking in voices other than the author’s own. That’s one of the true challenges of writing. To have a distinctive style and voice, but also to be able to vanish behind your writing.
How do you get there?
I don’t know, I’m still working on it.
For me, the key is in rewriting. Sometimes your first instinct is dead-on, but a lot of the time, it’s merely the easiest, most obvious answer. A script should never read like a first draft, even if it is. Even my first drafts have been worked and reworked. Especially with dialogue, you sometimes have to exhaust the possibilities before you can get to what you want. Go watch the special features on the “Deadwood” box set to see the way David Milch writes. He lies on the floor looking at his words on a huge screen, while someone else is typing, and goes through every variation of a line he can think of before he settles on what he wants. If only we all had the time, money and genius of David Milch. But even to a lesser extent, I think that’s how you have to write.
The great director Stanley Kubrick, who was infamous for shooting take after take after take of a scene, often without giving his actors any direction or notes whatsoever, once said, “Being real is one thing, but being interesting is better.” Kubrick often felt like he had to keep pressing, through countless different takes, before he could get to something truly interesting.
All writing is like that.
You have to be from somewhere, but be able to go other places. Have a voice, but be able to leave it behind. And be willing to push through what is obvious in order to find something interesting.